My first attempt at racing British Nationals. I feel like I’m a pretty experienced bike racer at this point – It’s been four years since I started pinning on numbers in earnest, and I’ve raced a huge number of events across the world. With all of that, though, I’ve very rarely raced in the UK. My racing started in Colorado, and has continued there ever since. I’ve not had the chance to come back to England and race, and I realise now that I haven’t had the fitness or experience to do so either. This race marked the last UCI race for 2014. This season took my count of national races from 2 to 9. In the process I’ve learnt exactly what I’ve got missing, and where I can get faster next year. I was really happy to have my Dad as support crew number 1 this weekend. We went through the learning process at Sherwood last weekend and we had everything dialled in for nationals. My Brother Frank, and sis-in-law-to-be Vicky also came along to shout at me in the woods.
I had a stupid warm up for the race – after a gentle spin on the lovely country lanes around Shropshire, I tried to get a last-minute lap of the course in. I hadn’t had time to pre-ride before hand, and the thought of starting nationals without knowing the loop was a bit scary. I managed to ride up the opening climb before a marshal decided I shouldn’t be on course. They told me I couldn’t ride any further, but had no idea how I should get back to the start without going on the course. Cue a last-minute scramble through the woods five minutes before race time! I found an old DH track that went straight downhill to the venue, but obviously wasn’t in the mental state to be riding it. I crashed pretty hard, opening a gash in my knee, and pulling my ring finger far enough back that I thought it would come off. (Yes, the race hasn’t even started yet and I’m already covered in mud and bleeding!) Once I finally made it to the start line, I slotted into 52/55 position on the grid. The course had a big wide open climb to start, and I was very confident of moving up. The gun went and that’s exactly what happened. Avoiding the obligatory start line crash, I moved up the outside of the course, and my brother counted me at 25th going into the singletrack. Now the ‘luck’ part of the racing was done I felt like I could relax a little. The climb (about 700 feet per lap) worked its way up on a mix of singletrack and dirt road, with plenty of passing places.
From the top, the descent dropped steeply through an old quarry back to the forest road below. First time down was very scary! I followed Lee Gratton, who I’d raced with last weekend, and I was confident he knew the lines. The surface was a mix of roots, slick rocks and hero dirt, and I had no idea what sections of the course I could trust. After feeling like Bambi on ice for the first lap, I got into the groove and was regularly dropping people on the descent. That felt good. Towards the middle of the race my forward progress halted and I found a couple of guys to ride with. I was faster down, they were faster up, but it gave me something to keep pedalling for.
At this point, the ability to suffer was waning, and my concentration on the downs was also failing. Towards the end of lap 6 on the successive drops back to the start/finish, I came in way too fast. With no way to slow down, I took to the undergrowth, and somehow managed to ride out a nose wheelie to avoid going down. That stymied my chance of catching the guys in front, so the last lap was an exercise in getting around. I probably lost 45 seconds in the last lap, but really had no ounce of drive to go any faster.
I crossed the line 16th. That’s a gain of 36 places off the start line, and a pretty good benchmark for what I can achieve in the future. The event (Organised by Pearce Cycles) was the smoothest and best run XC race I’ve been to. I have a lot of thoughts and comments about the difference between XC racing in the UK and the US that I’ll be writing down soon, but the gist of it is that the UK scene is a fantastic and friendly place to race bikes. I feel like I already have the fire I need to come back stronger next year.
The rest of this mountain bike season comprises of fun races in Colorado. I have the Steamboat Stinger coming up in August, which is my favourite race anywhere, and then some local Winter Park races, too. Suddenly thoughts turn to cross season (news on that front to come!), which is just around the corner!